Classical: On The Air Bayan Northcott

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The Independent Culture
SWITCHING ON Radio 3 in the middle of pieces one fails to recognise can result in piquant moments of truth: surprise at something interesting turning out to be by a composer one thought one loathed or, more unsettling, at something unappealing by a composer one believed that one loved. Tuning in mid-way to Saturday afternoon's Listeners' Choice, I chanced upon the opening bars of what turned out to be a sonata for clarinet and piano in four neatly turned and charmingly melodious movements.

But who on earth was it by? For while the music glanced at Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn, Sullivan even, it did not sound much like any of them. But then, neither did its undoubted competence harbour any obvious individuality. It was that ultimate critical poser: the well-written yet utterly anonymous piece. Then came Humphrey Carpenter to reveal that it was by that formidable Victorian pedagogue Ebenezer Prout, the editor of a once-popular version of Handel's Messiah and the author of textbooks on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, to be found mouldering stacks at the back of second-hand music shops. So this was what his own music sounded like! Well, at least the critical question could now be safely consigned to the dead-letter basket marked "academic".

Or could it? For Sunday's edition of Choir Works brought forth a far more imposing challenge of the same kind under the expert baton of that great resuscitator of neglected British choral works, Richard Hickox. This was The Canterbury Pilgrims (1931), a full-length setting of parts of Chaucer's Prologue to his Canterbury Tales for soloists, chorus and orchestra by Sir George Dyson (1883-1964). He too pursued a career in teaching, at Winchester School and the Royal College of Music. Yet his cantata could in no sense be dismissed as "academic", nor does it lapse into the slightly homespun quality of comparable works by Vaughan Williams or Finzi. The piece has the sheen of consummate professionalism, blending traits of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Bax. It even anticipates Walton in choral and orchestral textures that always sound well, and hold the attention through what is essentially a static conception, a musical portrait gallery (with some of Chaucer's less savoury characters, such as the Summoner and Pardoner, tastefully left out). The opening evocation of the pilgrims gathering at the Tabard Inn creates a lively expectation, while the final fade-out into the distance as the Knight begins the first Tale is genuinely poetic.

Yet are we any the wiser by the end as to who, musically speaking, Dyson himself actually was? Then again, does it really matter? Do we tend these days to place too much emphasis on individuality rather than skill? Monday's relay of the closing concert of this year's Aldeburgh Festival strongly suggested that we do not. Maybe the youthful Britten-Pears Orchestra sounded a little stretched in Britten's early, admonitory song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, and maybe Britten at times stretched its musical substance in the interests of rhetorical effect. Maybe Vernon Handley's reading of Tippett's cathartic oratorio A Child of Our Time could have been tauter, and maybe the score has its stylistic inconsistencies and drab patches. Yet the sense of two young composers with burning things to say, not only through but in music, remains overwhelming. Which is why Britten and Tippett continue to point the road ahead for British music, while Dyson will ever remain just a pleasant lay-by.